Denzel Washington is ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’; Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott In ‘Sweet Virginia’ – Specialty B.O. Preview

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Sony Pictures

Columbia Pictures awards hopeful Roman J. Israel, Esq. leads a slate of limited release newcomers more crowded than last weekend’s. Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo star in the film, which the filmmakers shot in Los Angeles. The title will bow in New York and L.A. before going wide November 22 in time for Thanksgiving. Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots and Rosemarie DeWitt star in Sweet Virginia from IFC Films, with filmmaker Jamie M. Dagg directing from a Black List script. Freddie Highmore hits the big screen with Almost Friends via Gravitas Ventures along with Odeya Rush, Christopher Meloni and Haley Joel Osment, while Jena Malone and Janet McTeer star in Freestyle’s psychosexual gothic drama Angelica. Argot Pictures is opening doc Big Sonia with an exclusive bow in New York.

Oscilloscope’s Song of Granite, Ireland’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, opened Wednesday at Film Four in New York. The Pat Collins film will go to the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles on December 8, with further rollout to select theaters nationwide. Other limited releases include Hong Sang-soo’s On The Beach at Night Alone via Cinema Guild at NYC’s Metrograph as well as Paladin’s Mr. Roosevelt in L.A. followed by New York on November 22. Rialto is launching The Crime of Monsieur Lange, while Netflix will open Mudbound in select locations.

Sony/Columbia Pictures

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Director-writer: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Sam Gilroy, Amanda Warren
Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Roman J. Israel, Esq. producer Jennifer Fox said that she’s often asked if the title character is based on a real person, but she said that the part was actually written by filmmaker Dan Gilroy with Denzel Washington in mind. Gilroy wrote the script after finishing up their 2014 film Nightcrawler.

“He wrote it on spec for Denzel which was risky because we didn’t know him,” said Fox. “We couldn’t imagine anyone else playing it. If he passed, we wouldn’t have a film, so thank God he didn’t pass. As Denzel came on, they worked together and enriched the character.”

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. In the feature, Washington stars as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended after his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When Roman is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a turbulent series of events ensue that will put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.

“Dan attended an activist event that someone had invited him to,” explained Fox. “From that [occasion], he wondered about people who were in the [activist field] in the ‘60s and stayed on doing it. That got him thinking initially. Then, we gave the script to Denzel a year ago in March and on Good Friday, we had our first meeting with him. When he completed Fences, we started shooting.”

Carmen Ejogo came aboard following an extensive search. Colin Farrell persona, meanwhile, fit the bill to play character George Pierce. “It’s a supporting role, but we needed someone who has leading man presence and strength,” said Fox. “You have to believe he has the soulfulness of becoming an activist, but also someone who needs to pay the bills. He’s doing what he has to do, so he loses some sight of where he began.”

The film shot over eight weeks in Los Angeles, with financing coming from multiple parties. Fox, who has filmed in a lot of locations globally, said L.A. is still “best.”

“The shoot was a career high watching Denzel become this character… People ask me about the challenges of shooting in L.A. I’ve shot all over the world and it’s my favorite. The best artisans live here and they get to sleep in their own beds. Also, there’s consistent weather. All of this started here for a reason. It’s a huge benefit to shoot [in L.A.] and there’s a richness of locations. I think this showcases the city in a certain way…We were lucky beneficiaries of the California tax rebate which allowed us to be able to shoot in L.A. We couldn’t imagine not doing it here.”

The project cost $22M according to Columbia Pictures which is opening it with evening showings Thursday. They are doing an awards push for the film, including, of course, Denzel Washington.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, though what audiences will see on the big screen will be at least somewhat different from what crowds saw at Toronto.

“The Toronto premiere for Dan and me was a huge learning experience,” said Fox. “It was the first time to screen it and we were very excited. We hadn’t done any test screenings. We accelerated our process. So in that large room [in Toronto] we learned there was a lot in it we didn’t need. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We took 12 minutes out [of the film].”

The feature will open in four theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, including the ArcLight Hollywood, AMC Century City, AMC Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square before going wide November 22 for Thanksgiving.

IFC Films

Sweet Virginia
Director: Jamie M. Dagg
Writers: Benjamin Cina, Paul China
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Christopher Abbott, Imogen Poots, Rosemarie DeWitt
Distributor: IFC Films

After his first feature, River, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015, filmmaker Jamie Dagg signed with WME which passed along Sweet Virginia, a Black List thriller from Benjamin and Paul China. The script would become his next project.

“I think what attracted me to it is that there’s the lack of anonymity in small towns affects how they interact with each other — keeping secrets is difficult,” said Dagg. “I like morally ambiguous people who confront life and death.”

In Sweet Virginia, a mysterious stranger sends shockwaves through a close-knit community. In the wake of a triple murder that leaves the residents of a remote Alaskan outpost on edge, tightly wound drifter Elwood (Christopher Abbott) checks into a motel run by Sam (Jon Bernthal), a former rodeo champion whose imposing physical presence conceals a troubled soul. Bound together by their outsider status, the two men strike up an uneasy friendship — a dangerous association that will set off a new wave of violence and unleash Sam’s darkest demons.

“The script originally had [the story] set in Virginia in the 1970s, but I moved it to Alaska set in the [present],” explained Dagg. “I think of Alaska as a ruggedly beautiful place that attracts drivers who flee their past. I thought of it as tonally right for this.”

After receiving the original script, Dagg began working with the writers to evolve the story. “They were understandably protective of their work,” said Dagg. “I didn’t want to blow a lot of money making an accurate period piece, which I didn’t think was important. I wanted to spend more money on more shooting days for instance.”

Christopher Abbot was the first main cast member to board the project. For the other starring character, Sam, offers had been given out to other actors in the 60 – 70 year age-range, but then Jon Bernthal was given the script. “I was a bit skeptical at first because he’s so physically imposing, but the character calls for vulnerability. But after speaking with him, I soon knew he’d do it well.” Rosemarie DeWitt and Imogen Poots joined during pre-production.

Sweet Virginia shot over 21 days in August, 2016 in British Columbia, with financing coming from production company, Exhibit. Added Dagg: “There was great chemistry between the cast and crew, and all of our locations were within a 500 yard radius.”

The film debuted at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. IFC Films picked up the title soon after the festival, which will open the feature Friday day and date with select theatrical showings this weekend.

Gravitas Ventures

Almost Friends
Director-writer: Jake Goldberger
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Odeya Rush, Christopher Meloni, Haley Joel Osment, Marg Helgenberger, Jake Abel, Taylor John Smith
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Gravitas Ventures is banking in part that Freddie Highmore’s success with The Good Doctor will also extend to Almost Friends, which it is opening Friday.

In the film, Highmore plays a once promising young chef, Charlie, who is now an unmotivated twenty-something who lives at home with his mom and stepfather while working at a small movie theatre and living vicariously through his best friend, Ben. His life takes an unpredictable turn however, when he finds himself falling for local barista Amber. Problem is, Amber has her own distractions – her mooching roommate a track star boyfriend and steadfast plans to move to New York City. On top of that, Charlie’s estranged father unexpectedly re-enters his life just as he begins to take a long, hard look at where he’s going and who he wants to be.

“We saw Almost Friends before The Good Doctor came out,” said Gravitas Ventures VP of Sales & Marketing Laura Florence. “We’re excited by how well the film has been received, and [Freddie Highmore] and Odeya Rush along with the rest of the cast are great draws. Plus, The Good Doctor’s ratings are so good.”

Florence said this weekend’s release squares well for the film due to the timing of its various promotional activities including appearances with cast along with press events.

“It will be the main release from our slate this month,” said Florence. “Obviously younger audiences will be attracted to the film by Freddie and Odeya, but Christopher Meloni and others have been able to attract older audiences.”

Gravitas will open Almost Friends in a day and date release Friday, opening theatrically in ten markets.

Freestyle Digital Media

Director-writer: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Writer: Arthur Phillips (novel)
Cast: Jena Malone, Janet McTeer, Ed Stoppard, Tovah Feldshuh
Distributor: Freestyle Digital Media

Writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein had Arthur Phillips’ 2007 novel Angelica land in his orbit because he and the author share the same representation. “I read it while editing another movie,” said Lichtenstein. “It took another year to adapt it, [and by] 2012, it was ready to go out for financing.”

The psychosexual gothic drama is set in Victorian London. In the film, puritanical doctors prescribe abstinence to a young couple after the life-threatening birth of their daughter. Sexual repression leads to obsession and opens the door to paranormal phenomena.

Lichtenstein said he originally pictured a British woman in the lead, but after seeing Jena Malone, he was sold. “She did some scenes on tape and it was very moving,” he said. “I believed her as both an actor and as someone from the 1880s.”

While reading the novel, he pictured Janet McTeer in the role of Anne Montague. A mutual friend introduced the two and McTeer came on board. Angelica shot over 30 days mostly in a mansion on the Hudson River in Yonkers, NY with an additional four days in London for exteriors. Financing came through private sources, including Mitchell Lichtenstein.

“We premiered it in Berlin in 2015,” he said. “After that, I went back into editing and took more time. The extra editing wasn’t a result of reviews that came out of the festival, but I just had more time to spend with it and decided I wanted to work on it.”

Freestyle came on board for the film’s release several months ago. Lichtenstein acknowledged the challenge in finding a home. “We were lead on by one company that was going to release it, which then didn’t work out. That set us back six months,” he said. “Finding a distributor is hard, and it’s a challenging movie to categorize, so [a challenge] to market.”

Angelica will roll out in a day and date release, and set for 10 theatrical showings in 10 cities.

Argot Pictures

Big Sonia
Directors: Todd Soliday, Leah Warshawski
Distributor: Argot Pictures

Big Sonia co-director Leah Warshawski had much less than six degrees of separation from finding the subject of her documentary (co-directed by Todd Soliday), Sonia Warshawski. The woman is her grandmother, though she said it was through this project that she became more familiar with her.

“We’ve gotten to know each other during the movie,” said Leah Warshawski. “During the process, Todd and I got married. We started it thinking it would be a short film and then it tuned into a six-year feature film because of the multiple story arcs.”

Centered in the last store in a defunct shopping mall, 91-year-old Sonia Warshawski, great-grandmother, businesswoman, and Holocaust survivor, runs the tailor shop she’s owned for more than thirty years. But when she’s served an eviction notice, the specter of retirement prompts Sonia to revisit her harrowing past as a refugee and witness to genocide.

“We started exploring the diva that Sonia is and thought a short film about this charismatic figure would be a great story,” said Soliday. “But once we saw her connection to the outside world and what she’s meant to people like teens in schools and also people in prison, we [expanded the story]. About midway through filming, she was served an eviction notice and for us as filmmakers, that was a major story arc that turned it into a feature.”

The filmmakers had challenges with financing, which also expanded the length of the overall shooting time. They raised $79K through a crowd funding campaign via Women You Should Fund. The rest of the $450K price tag for the project came via regional funding sources as well as private sources including their family.
The filmmakers began the editing process from the beginning over the filming process, but did amass 300 hours of footage.

“She always wanted to be a movie star and has the highest respect for any celebrity,” said Warshawski about her grandmother and her multi-year participation. “She loves being on camera, so for us, she was a great subject. But, six years later, when she saw the first rough cut, she understood it’s about more than just her. There is a bigger purpose.”

The filmmakers began working with Argot Pictures for the release over the summer. The feature will bow Friday exclusively at the Quad in New York, where Sonia Warshawski will take part in Q&As. The film currently has engagements in ten cities. Added Leah Warshawski: “We’re hoping that will open the floodgates.”

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